A screenshot of Boundless Informant: the NSA's tool to organize and analyze their global surveillance data. via WikiCommons.
I expected Canada to be upset and disturbed by the revelations made by history’s most famous whistleblowing fugitive, Edward Snowden. And, of course, many Canadians are. However, when it comes to the conversation that’s being held on the world stage, between our government and America’s, things seem pretty chill.
I know they’re supposed to be our big brother and all, but when the American ambassador to Canada says the NSA isn’t spying on Canadians—why should we believe him? We know that PRISM collects communications between Americans and non-Americans when their system classifies a conversation as suspicious. So if I email a guy in Chicago, about taking “a Southwest flight to San Diego, where Iran into one of the Chemical Brothers” [this NSA-baiting phrase was generated by MOTHERBOARD’s Hello NSA site] as a Canadian, shouldn’t I have cause to be concerned?
A big part of why Canada doesn’t want to take a swing at Obama’s government—which has invoked the espionage act more times than all of the other presidents combined, largely to prosecute whistleblowers—is that Canada is in the mass surveillance game too. Not only are we in the game, we’re playing it in bed beside the NSA, the CIA, Homeland Security, the FBI, and whoever else wants to join in on the action.
The United States, along with Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and England have formed a global surveillance super-group called the “Five Eyes,” which you may already be familiar with if you follow spy game politics. It’s not clear if Canada fancies itself as a Baby Spice or a Scary Spice when the Five Eyes go out and do the group thing for Halloween, but what is obvious is that this troupe has agreed to share the information they’ve harvested from their own spying machines with each other—to create a global surveillance net. Five Eyes began as an intelligence partnership between the United States and England in 1948, a bond that had a much less ominous name: the “UKUSA” agreement.
According to Snowden’s documents, the UK is taking the “lead role” within the Five Eyes posse, as they have the “biggest internet access” for spying. One of Snowden’s files even included a quote from Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, the Chief of the NSA, who wrote: “Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time? … Sounds like a good summer project for Menwith.” If you’re not up on your British surveillance institutions Menwith is an “eavesdropping site” located in Northern England.
The Government Communications Headquarters in Gloucestershire, England. The UK's answer to the NSA. via WikiCommons.
As an aside, I find the fun times language of “summer project,” to indicate a very comfortable level at which these organizations cooperate with each other. Developing an all-seeing eye over every communication that transpires in the world seems to be a casual gig that they chip away at summer by summer. Meanwhile, Snowden is stuck in Russia waiting to be granted asylum in Venezuela…
But let’s not get distracted by the plight of Edward Snowden—no matter how insane, troubling, and Hollywood-esque it may be. What he did was incredible, his fate is still uncertain, but he didn’t reveal the truth about the American government’s surveillance industry simply so that we could speculate on whether or not he will escape punishment.
So, what is Canada’s role in the Five Eyes? Thus far, the Canadian government has continually “brushed off questions” about its own spying capabilities. We know that our Defence Minister (no not the old, cool one who believes in aliens) cosigned a surveillance program in 2011 that would monitor global internet and phone traffic—but of course, he says, it doesn’t target Canadians.
The Guardian has also revealed that Canada’s own spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSEC), may very well have helped England spy on Londoners during the G20 protests and riots. Could this have been a “thanks bro” for any surveillance that the other Four Eyes helped Canada with during Toronto’s G20 protests? Are the Five Eyes helping out the Canadian government look into the Montreal protesters right now? What about Idle No More? Or the activists who are against Enbridge’s Line 9? One would imagine that our government isn’t just helping out England because we care about the commonwealth.
Beyond Canada’s possible efforts to squash social dissent through surveillance, both domestically and to assist our global partners, Canadians must be concerned about whether or not they are personally being spied on. The typical defense of surveillance programs like PRISM is that they are developed to target the bad guys; but by design, they gather such vast amounts of data (the Brits’ own agency, GCHQ, say they take in 600 million “telephone events” a day) that most of their information is simply not going to help foil a big terrorist attack. All of that excess data is categorized as incidental or inadvertent interceptions.
The CSEC, Canada’s surveillance agency, says that such interceptions are destroyed upon discovery. But according to “top secret documents” seen by The Guardian, America’s Foreign Intelligence Security Court (a court that aims to operate entirely in secrecy) has authorized the NSA to “make use of information ‘inadvertently’ collected from domestic US communications without a warrant.” So has the CESC also been given some kind of secret power to use the inadvertent interceptions they get without really telling anyone they’re using it? If the Five Eyes also trade secrets with each other on how to get around judicial loopholes, then that would certainly be a possibility.
As Conor Friedersorf posited for The Atlantic, “intelligence agencies have an incentive to make themselves complicit in foreign governments spying on their own citizens.” That’s because they can help each other get around their own country’s pesky surveillance laws. If the information is coming from another country, they can help clean it up and trade it with each other to make it legally useful. While the NSA denies this as a possibility stating “Any allegation that NSA relies on its foreign partners to circumvent U.S. law is absolutely false," it’s kinda hard to believe anything they say at this point.
Canadians are supposed to be reassured by the American ambassador saying that America isn’t spying on Canadians, but we know that Canada was helping England spy on its own people, and America’s own Director of National Intelligence lied to Congress when he said the NSA was not spying on Americans. It seems that these questionable statements, or outright lies, are designed to protect the greater good: The Five Eyes. Given that Microsoft has now been outed for cooperating with the NSA, it’s clear there is a governmental and corporate alliance devoted to keeping this surveillance machine intact.
So if the Canadian government isn’t going to get mad for you, or discuss their own surveillance programs, then perhaps they are creating the ideal situation for a Canadian whistleblower to emerge. Given the omniscience of this surveillance network, however, the Five Eyes have certainly created an anti-resistance, anti-dissent climate that likely will scare activists and leakers from speaking out. The curtain has been pulled back on the existence of a massive spy machine, but unless someone is able to pull its power cord, it seems like this is the world we’re stuck with.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire